One week is way too small a sample size to judge a team, obviously. And we're not going to really know about the Kansas City Chiefs until they come back from their Week 4 bye and play two straight roadies at Indianapolis and Houston. But there they are, alone in first place in the AFC West after their 21-14 win over division favorite San Diego -- with a winnable game at Cleveland coming up.
There was a lot to like Monday night -- the rebirth of Derrick Johnson (game-high 12 tackles) and the production of the rookie class, most notably all-purpose back Dexter McCluster (second round) and tight end Tony Moeaki (third round), who scored two of the three touchdowns. Also, safety Eric Berry (first) and cornerback/returner Javier Arenas (second) played like seasoned pros.
Look a little closer. Look on the sidelines. There was a big difference there, too.
Coach Todd Haley stopped micromanaging every detail of the team in the offseason, importing a proven offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, and defensive boss, Romeo Crennel. Haley handed Weis the offensive play-calling duties, but retained final say on that front. And this distribution of duties might have made the difference in the decisive touchdown of the game. Might, I say, because you can never tell how games can turn on decisions like the one Haley made late in the second quarter.
Last year, during breaks in the game on the sidelines, Haley would have been deep in conversation with quarterback Matt Cassel, going over the Polaroids to discuss defensive coverage and how to beat it. Now that's Weis' job. So during one of San Diego's drives, Haley looked over and saw Arenas with his hands on his thighs, bent over, obviously winded; he'd been playing all nickel snaps on defense for the Chiefs.
"Put McCluster back on punt returns,'' Haley told special teams coach Steve Hoffman. Hoffman looked at Haley like he had two heads. Arenas had returned two punts in the quarter, one for 36 yards and one for 24. You want me to take Arenas off returns?
"Why?'' Hoffman said. "Javier is doing a great job!''
"He's tired!'' Haley said.
"I understand it wasn't a normal decision to make,'' Haley said this week. "But because I wasn't buried over on the bench coaching Matt, I could make a lot of observations the other night. And when I saw Arenas wearing himself out in the middle of the second quarter, I just thought we could use our resources better.''
McCluster returned the next Mike Scifres punt 94 yards for a touchdown. Longest punt return in Chiefs history. The winning touchdown, as it turned out.
"I had a lot of fun coaching the team the other night,'' Haley said. "The team.''
Weis has settled into an anonymous role with the Chiefs. He doesn't do interviews -- the Chiefs denied me permission to speak with him this week -- ostensibly so he can focus on his job and not the media and public things he struggled with during his five-year tenure at Notre Dame. From all reports, quarterback Cassel likes Weis, the former tutor of Cassel's pal Tom Brady, and they're working well together. Haley said he enjoys the back-and-forth coach discussions with Weis. Then he mostly allows Weis to call the game they've discussed during the week.
There were a couple of exceptions Monday. On fourth down at the San Diego 39 with nine seconds and no timeouts left in the first half, on a rainy and windy night, the Chiefs had a few options. They could throw a Hail Mary or try for a quick throw to the sidelines to get 10 to 12 yards closer for a field-goal try. Weis favored the Hail Mary. Haley flashed back to the Dallas disaster just before halftime the previous night, when the Cowboys should have played it safe but Tony Romo took off running and pitched to Tashard Choice, who had the ball stripped, resulting in Washington's only touchdown of the game.
"I just thought the businesslike decision, up two scores on a lousy weather night, would be to dump it to the back and maybe we'd get in field-goal range with a second or two to kick it,'' Haley said. "We did it, and it didn't work, but I just didn't want to take any chances there that could have cut into our lead. But for the most part, I'm going to bend to the other coaches because they're the ones who've put all the work in, all the time in.''
Haley said he's "really enjoying working with Charlie. When he interviewed, I wanted to know how he was going to react to being in a situation like this. I said, 'You've been the boss of a lot of people for a long time. How will you handle this?' I mean, there's probably not a more high-profile job than Notre Dame coach in our business. But it's been great. I have not had a single doubt about it since we've been working together.''
One other thing I found interesting, and unprecedented to the best of my knowledge, about the Chiefs this week: On Monday morning, 10 hours before the game, he put the players through a 20-minute "workout'' (largely a yoga-type stretching period) at their training facility.
"Trent Dilfer [of ESPN] was here doing the game on TV,'' Haley said, "and at our production meeting the day before the game, I told him I was thinking about doing something to loosen up the players on the morning of the game. His eyes lit up. He said, 'I always felt crappy playing on Monday night.' You know, you sit around for seven, eight, nine hours, doing nothing. Right then, I decided we were going to do something. So Monday morning, our strength and conditioning coach, Mike Clark, got them out on the field for what I'd call a 'dynamic stretch.' Just enough to get a little sweat going.''
Did it work? Who knows? But last year, Haley pressed so many of the wrong buttons. This was a week that was a long time coming for the Chiefs -- a week when the coach made the right moves with players good enough to win a big game against a quality team. The times might be changing in Kansas City.
Fred Taylor, RB, New England
When's the last time a strong playoff contender relied on a 34-year-old back as its primary ballcarrier? That could be the case now that the Patriots have traded the underachieving Laurence Maroney to Denver and will go to a running-back-by-committee, led by the veteran Taylor. Relying on Taylor sounds very risky, unless you consider his odd situation. The last time he was a regular back getting the bulk of his team's carries was 2007; Jacksonville started Taylor in 2008 but gave 54 more carries to Maurice Jones-Drew that year. In 2007, Taylor was 31. In the last five games of the '07 season, Taylor ran for 104, 104, 132, 147 and 111 yards. In his 19 games since, Taylor has had 20 carries or more in a game twice -- and in both of those games, he topped 100 yards. So maybe he's got more left in the tank than a 14-year back has any right to have.
"The big thing about how I feel now,'' Taylor told me last night, "is how I prepared with a bunch of young guys in the offseason -- Frank Gore, Kevin Smith, Julius Jones, Thomas Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew. We trained down in Miami. I outran a good friend of mine, [cornerback] Lito Sheppard. I ran -- unofficially -- a 4.3 40. In football age, I'm old, of course. But I'm prepared for whatever coach [Bill Belichick] hands to me. If I can get 20-plus carries, and I have no idea if that will happen, and average four to five yards a pop, that's easy.''
If Matt Moore had been his usual, accurate self against the Giants last week, Brandon LaFell, the third-round rookie from LSU, could have had a starry debut against the Giants. Moore targeted the tall kid he's learning to trust eight times, but only completed two of the throws. This week, with Tampa Bay's strong interior line play, Moore will have to throw to move the chains. So here's LaFell's projection versus Tampa Bay:
Jason McCourty, CB, Tennessee (No. 30)
"It'll be a pleasure facing Hines Ward,'' the less famous of the McCourty cornerback twins told me on Sirius NFL Radio this week. "I have much respect for him.''
Be careful what you wish for. The starting cornerback opposite Cortland Finnegan is going to get some action in this game, even with Dennis Dixon playing quarterback for the Steelers, because Tennessee is going to load up to stop the run and challenge the Steelers to win by throwing it. McCourty has shown ability to cover speed receivers, which he'll need to do when he's on Mike Wallace, and he's going to need to bring his big-boy pads for the downfield jousts with Ward.
1. Arian Foster to have tougher sledding, but to top 100 yards again. Two career starts: 350 yards, five rushing touchdowns. The Redskins know he's coming. Might be time for Albert Haynesworth to decide to be a factor.
2. The Michael Vick show. Coach Andy Reid wants him to be a pocket quarterback Sunday -- assuming Vick plays instead of the concussed Kevin Kolb. I think that's a good blueprint. But he was at his most dangerous by scrambling in Week 1 against Green Bay, not throwing. He has to run to be good.
3. Action on the Vincent Jackson front to heat up, now that teams know he'd be available in Week 5. The Chargers don't want him, which is the worst-kept secret in the NFL. Vikings do. Second-round compensation is too high because of the cost of his contract and the risk of dealing for a guy who could be suspended for a year with one more NFL conduct violation. This trade facilitator says: Take a third-rounder, A.J. Smith, and move on. And get Marcus McNeill signed, by the way.
4. Chapter 2: The Manning Bowl. For the Giants to win, Justin Tuck or Mathias Kiwanuka has to be the hero, not Eli. Because the only way the Giants win is to rattle the older brother.
5. The kinder, gentler Jets. Haven't heard a peep out of the Hard-Knockers all week, after they spit the bit in an awful show against Baltimore. Now the Patriots are coming to town, and all we hear is respectful clichés. Where's Joe Namath when you need him?
6. Who takes charge in the Green Bay backfield. Though it looks to be Brandon Jackson taking over for the injured Ryan Grant, don't be surprised to see John Kuhn, the 250-pound short-yardage back, stealing carries (and fantasy points) from Jackson. And don't be surprised to see GM Ted Thompson deal for a Fred Jackson in the next few days, particularly if the running game struggles against Buffalo, which shouldn't happen.
7. The Vikings to struggle again. I expect the Fightin' Favres to benefit from no place like dome Sunday against Miami, but they'd better protect the grandfather QB. Last week in Buffalo, the Dolphins' new three-pronged pass-rush (Cameron Wake, Koa Misi and Karlos Dansby) had a sack apiece.
8. Jimmy Raye and Alex Smith to get it right. The Niners' offensive coordinator can't always get the plays called into Smith's helmet on time. Inexcusable. As is Smith's 52.5 passer rating. Here come the Super Bowl champion Saints to town -- with their send-the-house defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- for a nice little Monday night home-opener. Not much pressure there.
9. What Mike Pereira has in store for us. One of the best innovations in NFL TV in recent years made an impressive Week 1 regular-season debut, with Pereira telling America, like it or not, that Calvin Johnson's catch, by rule, wasn't really a catch -- right in the middle of the Lions-Bears replay review on FOX. Now FOX has to hope for a very controversial call or two again this weekend ... in NFC games, of course. By the way, Pereira loves his new life. Instead of getting reamed by coaches and GMs over the phone at his NFL office Monday, his first year outside of NFL employment is much more pleasant. He played 18 holes Monday in Los Angeles.
10.Philip Riversto be on his best behavior against the Jags at home. I like Rivers the player and person a lot, and I can see a quarterback getting testy with his linemen for screwing up. But over and over again? And kicking the football in anger on the field? Talk to him, Norv. That stuff's not helping him win.